NATIVE AMERICAN GENIUS
(The Road Less Traveled)
This is the story of three men, from disparate backgrounds, who became comrades in arms and eventually enemies. Kah-nung-da-cla-geh, later known as Major Ridge, was the most revered and wisest of the Cherokee People, a full-blooded chief. John Ross, the protégée of Kah-nung-da-cla-geh, held the position of Principle Chief of the Cherokee Tribe for over thirty years. The final player in this drama was no less than the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson.
Each of these men was absolutely convinced he was doing what was right, but in life perspective is everything. The actual events of childhood are not as important as how experiences shape a nascent mind through the window of individual perception. The peculiar view of each of them even when looking at the same circumstances was the genesis of their personal conflict; it would threaten the very existence of the Cherokee Nation.
In the early part of the Nineteenth Century the Cherokee Tribe was an anomaly among native peoples. By 1828, their commerce and culture had achieved parity with white civilization in the New World.
Ironically, it was Chief John Ross, only one eighth Cherokee and seven-eighths Scottish, who insisted his people stand against President Jackson and not cede an inch of land even if it meant their destruction. Jackson saw the Cherokee tribe as an obstruction to the fulfillment of divine providence that the borders of the fledging republic should span from sea to sea. If that meant moving the Cherokee across the Mississippi, then so be it. Even in old age Jackson persisted in his resolve that he had chosen the best course for the Indians, “It was for their own good. They would have perished under the onslaught of the inevitable American migration. It was the duty of the President of the United States to preserve the Cherokee People. and make room for progress.”
Tragically, the principal player in this epic tale, Kah-nung-da-cla-geh, who had led his people on a parallel path of civilization with that of the United States and had preserved the integrity of their tribe and lands long after all the other native peoples east of the Mississippi had been pushed west, would die in infamy.
In 1836, when he realized his people would face annihilation if they did not sell their ancient lands in exchange for a reservation across the Mississippi, he signed a treaty without the consent of Chief Ross. That violated the “Blood Law”, which Kah-nung-da-cla-geh had incorporated into Cherokee Law several years earlier—a capital crime. Kah-nung-da-cla-geh’s choices may be questioned, but not his integrity nor his love for his people. He profited not from his moral decision; it only caused immeasurable pain and suffering for his family and him.
TRAITOR OF THE CHEROKEE-1839
“Traitor, traitor,” bellowed, James Foreman, “Ridge is the white man’s squaw.” Those words hung on the oppressive heat of the June air, dangling like a corpse at the end of an executioners knot. The council fell silent, with only the shrill of locus as accompaniment, until the last breath of air had been drawn from the night.
The council fire danced with each gust of wind that washed across the Indian campsite, its fiery flames grasping into the cloud-speckled sky of the full moon night. The Cherokee Nation had gathered on the Arkansas foothills, intent upon choosing the leadership for a people torn from their ancient roots in Georgia and transplanted by the U.S. military to a new homeland.
Slowly, mutterings spewed from dark corners of the crowd, smoldering, seething until finally they rose into a crescendo that metastasized into a singular chant. “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him! Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!
Major Ridge, once a hero-- now at sixty seven an object of contempt-- turned his back on his people’s rage and strode toward a grove of sycamores until he reached a stream which belched from between a narrow cleft of stone and cascaded over gray-green rocks before pausing in a mirrored pond. He knelt on arthritic knees, scooped up two handfuls of water, and showered his face with the shock of cool prescriptive, purging the sweat of anger, but not the pain of accusation. His fingertips lingered on his temples before he drew them back over his forehead and through his silvered mane.
He wondered how his life had come to this point as a gentle diashet swept in from the east and washed over him carrying his mind to a time of innocence. He closed his eyes, and felt his heart thunder and his chest swell with pride as he escaped into the past, a decade earlier, to a Cherokee Eden. Back then, his homeland was bursting with green-grassed pastures of the elatse’ (green earth), salted with sheep and peppered with headless Angus, intent upon dinner, noses buried in the saw-grass-- as it waved in welcome response to the coaxing of the afternoon breeze. Whole families, children and old ones strained toward a common goal, the woman of the house, with halter in hand led the plow horse, while father guided the steel blade in determined accuracy and split open the belly of mother earth, with the children following behind dropping the seeds of anticipation for the coming summer. Farther up the valley, his plantation house at Oostanaula (later named Rome, Georgia) whose grandeur knew no equal anywhere in eighteen century white America, perched on the horizon of the southern most of seven hills, aligned due north, its ashen walls two stories high, reflected the sun’s glow, accented by the forest green trim which adorned its plantation shutters and matching roof. Its domain was stewarded by two dozen African slaves, who broke their backs in order that their owner might build a Cherokee Nation.
Theirs was a government replete with a constitution, judiciary, executive and legislative branches, and a corps of Lighthorse Riders, who policed the countryside, administering the law and maintaining order. A society of abundance, ribboned with a road of education that had vowed to guide every child to the table of literacy. Factories had sprung up across the landscape and spinning wheels whirred endlessly in home after home. It was a culture capped by the most obvious symbol of modern society, a voice of the people- the newspaper, which Elias Boudinot had christened Tsa’lagi’Tsule’hisanunhi, the resurrected one, Anglicized to The Cherokee Phoenix.
But unlike the mythical creature that rose from the ashes, this incongruity in Indian civilization had been the first victim of the Georgian Government’s holocaust, which ravaged and infested their homes. At the time of The American Revolution, the Cherokee Nation spanned the lands that would be later named Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. Those were all gone.
Now Major Ridge could only picture the plague of white faces he knew were devouring the land of his people. As he looked down at his own feet, toes facing east, he remembered the words of a conjurer from his youth.
“I heard a strange sound in the forest three days ago, and went to discover its origin. Where I found the Unkas, white-faced and pale skinned cutting the trees of the forest. My brothers hear my words, the Unkas will tell the Ani-Yunwiyah (real people) that they should give up their traditional ways, and instead spin cloth, and let the Unkas build roads through the real people’s land, and tell them to dress like the white man and take up his religion. But my brothers the Unakas will face your toes Wude’lguu’yi, in the direction where the sun sets, never to return, for all these things they give you are just a way for them to take your heritage and your land.”
Ridge felt a wave of pain well up in his throat, then remorse, for he had encouraged his people to create a world equal to that of the white man. For, from his days as a boy he had heard the white man’s argument of why uncivilized, uneducated, pagan, Indians should give up their land. Ridge had recognized a kernel of truth buried deep within the lie. He was well aware of how the hunter’s way of life had doomed the Seminole, the Oneida, and the Creek, as their game herds grew thin. These once great nations had forever been banished from the earth. The Cherokee “savages” had rivaled the civilization of White America. Did that not matter? Should that not have made a difference?
Too late, he had realized the unique path taken by the Cherokee had only forestalled that same inevitable fate of the other tribes. How could he have been so wrong...he who was named Ka-nun--da-cla-ga, not only for his prowess as a hunter and bravery as a warrior, but above all his people, he was thought to possess the vision to see beyond the present into the future. He prayed for blindness, longing to cling to the darkness of the past as he gazed into the sky.
“You know my heart Great Spirit. I beseech you and the spirits of my ancestors to hear my words. I did sell the lands of our People and the sacred ground where you are buried, but I did so only because my people were being destroyed daily by the Georgians and the United States Government was complicit. Soon, we would have had nothing, and yet would still have been forced to leave our homes and immigrate to lands across the Great Waters. I did not do this for personal gain. I did this with the full understanding of what would befall me. I did it for the love of my people.”